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Neo-Nazis gathered last month outside of Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit, to support Governor Ron DeSantis and pass out antisemitic propaganda. Photo: Dave Decker

Antisemitism simmers in Florida, and DeSantis stirs the pot

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Antisemitism simmers in Florida, and DeSantis stirs the pot

Neo-Nazis gathered last month outside of Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit, to support Governor Ron DeSantis and pass out antisemitic propaganda. Photo: Dave Decker

When is a personnel suspension just a suspension? Or to refine the topic of the day: When is a personnel suspension just a crass move of pure political opportunism or instead is a thinly veiled example of antisemitism?

We know that the suspension of Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida was motivated at least in part by politics. The governor got to score points with the Donald Trump rump of the Republican Party as an element of his apparent determination to wrest away the 2024 Republican presidential nomination from Trump himself.

But some voices in Florida believe that the move – which DeSantis defended by claiming that Warren “put himself publicly above the law” when he made it clear he wouldn’t enforce Florida legislation limiting abortion or prosecute providers of gender-affirming health care for transgender youth – had trace elements of antisemitism.

The purported evidence: The governor’s remark characterizing Warren, who is Jewish, as a “Soros-backed state attorney.”

All of which raises another question: Is the mere employment of the word “Soros” an indication of antisemitism?

And another question: Is acceptance of money that can be traced to Soros, even through a second source such as the Florida Democratic Party, a political liability in a time of heightened partisanship and in an era when the Hungarian-born American financier is a prime target for conservatives who consider him a symbol of liberalism gone awry – and when he is at the center of wild conspiracy theories?

George Soros, of course, is many things. He is a billionaire. He is a big Democratic donor. He is Jewish. He also is a symbol of Democratic activism and fund-raising that some Republicans and some conservatives believe is at the heart of an effort to undermine American values and American democracy. (Of course, those at the other end of American politics feel the same way about Trump.)

But the point here is that some Jews believe the simple invoking of Soros’s name is a “dog whistle” – a potent metaphor, indicating a sound that some can hear but others can’t, a term that serves as a code that mobilizes parts of the population without necessarily alerting others. Soros, who has never run for office, nonetheless has been a prominent part of political campaigns for more than a decade, including contests this year in the swing states of Georgia and Arizona.

“It is unconscionable for the governor to strip away local districts’ abilities to control their lives and their policies, and in doing this he has been using antisemitic dog whistles,” Samuel Edelman, vice president for issues for the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus, told me in a telephone conversation the other day. “George Soros has nothing to do with the policies of the state attorney. And Warren has not violated any law. His freedom of speech has been breached and the governor has overstepped his authority. It’s one more DeSantis step toward authoritarianism.”

Like every incendiary political issue – especially in these fraught times – very little is simple. That’s surely the case here. On the one hand, the governor has the right to suspend an official in Warren’s position. On the other, Warren representing his views in two letters he signed along with dozens of other progressive prosecutors is not in an official action, so he has not violated any state law – though it is likely he was girding to do so. Moreover, there is currently no Florida law prohibiting the provision of care to transgender youths.

And on the third hand – two hands no longer are sufficient for American politics in this era – the questions of whether a government official has First Amendment rights, and whether a government executive has the right to fire or suspend an appointee whose views stray from administration orthodoxy, have never been resolved clearly. One example prominent in American Jewish history might be a useful touchstone: The 1979 pressure on United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young to resign after he met with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in New York in contravention of United States policy at the time. President Jimmy Carter denied that American Jewish leaders “urged me to ask” Young to resign, but many Jewish leaders at the time were not displeased by the decision.

The complexity in this Florida affair goes even deeper.

Soros is unabashed about supporting liberal prosecutors. Two weeks ago he wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal – not known for espousing progressive causes – that said, “I have supported the election (and more recently the re-election) of prosecutors who support reform. I have done it transparently, and I have no intention of stopping.”

DeSantis is savvy at reading public opinion. In suspending Warren, he took advantage of the fact that crime – and especially violent crime – are concerns of the voting public, and has been rising in the Tampa area.

Then there is the context: Less than a fortnight earlier, Tampa was the setting for a deeply unsettling demonstration of neo-Nazis, complete with swastika flags, outside the convention hall where the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit was being held. (One of the speakers was Trump). “This isn’t about politics or religion,” said Mike Igel, chairman of the Florida Holocaust Museum, who called upon “Jew and non-Jew, regardless of political affiliation, to condemn this blatant antisemitism in the strongest possible terms.” A spokesman for the organization, Andrew Kolvet, said, “Turning Point 100% condemns these ideologies in the strongest of terms.”

Things got even more sensitive after Bruce Reinhart, a member of the board of Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., was targeted with antisemitic remarks and threats after it was revealed that he was the magistrate judge who signed the warrant leading to the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago earlier this month.

Warren, interviewed on MSNBC, described his suspension as “Orwellian Thought Police, where I’m being punished for not enforcing laws that are not even on the books yet.” His only path of appeal is through the state Senate, where Republicans hold three-fifths of the seats. The prospects of vindication there are nil.

In any case, the firing of Warren, and the questions about antisemitism that it raised, are yet another element of the toxic nature of American politics today.

“Not unexpectedly, the firing of Warren is viewed through partisan lenses,” the University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, perhaps the most prominent political analyst in the state, said in an interview. “Republicans think it is wonderful, Democrats are adamantly against it. The Tampa media market is one of the most divided of the 10 media markets of the state. This simply reflects political partisanship of the time.”

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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